“The day has now ended. Our lives are shorter. Now we look carefully. What have we done? Noble Sangha, with all our heart, let us be diligent, engaging in the practice. Let us live deeply, free from afflictions, aware of impermanence so life does not drift away without meaning.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh (from “Touching the Earth: Conversations with the Buddha”)
I have concluded that comfort is the enemy of diligence. We all want to be comfortable. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. The problems come, not when we fail, but when we succeed at finding comfort.
Let me give an example. When young people enter young adulthood, supports are often withdrawn from them. It’s time to “stand on one’s own two feet.” The assumption is that young people will transition. Often, they do not. They seek for ways to cope and function in the adult world, some healthier and saner than others. Some get educations; some get and stay drunk for a number of years. Regardless, they are all seeking ways to feel comfortable.
By their thirties, they have generally found some ways of living that work at least temporarily. Things are stabilizing, for better or worse. Now they may have an education and a kid or two. Things may not be great, but they are okay, finally.
Their forties bring more stability. Now they are comfortable. And their lives are half over. Some have “mid-life crises” if they are aware enough of the passage of time, but most are not. The bloom is off the rose. Health may start to decline, particularly if they made poor choices in their twenties and thirties. The long, slow decline has begun. Unending reminiscence has begun. “Remember back when…”
Where did the time go? It went to television, the bars, video games, and other diversions that sucked their attention. They got comfortable. Not even necessarily “complacent.” Just more at ease. As if life were meant to be easy.
Organizations undergo the exact same process. Their glory days may have been in the seventies, but it doesn’t matter. Unless something interrupts the process, decline begins and their best days are past. All organizations have had to deal with the life cycle of start-up, growth, stability, decline, and death. For example, IBM does not sell the same products and services it did in the 70s. If you don’t want to go down the decline side of the life cycle, new ideas, products, services, processes, and people are required.
I look back on my own life and realize that my efforts at comfort have succeeded, to my detriment. I did not have to work when first married. I was tired of one teen crisis after another. My brief stint in the Army had been physically injurious. I just wanted to relax. And I did. I wish now I had made more effort to have a career, but it wasn’t a priority. I was finally comfortable. Whew!
I went back to work when Barry’s Huntington’s became emotionally real to me. I found a really crappy job at a bindery, which ended up going bankrupt maybe a year after I left it. I couldn’t find a job and no longer had any skills employers were looking for. Back to school.
Going back to school was not comfy. Dealing with Barry’s cancer did not make me feel good. What these things did was to make me function at a higher level. Every time I have made myself comfortable has resulted in a halting of my progress. No human can handle endless trauma. At some point, rest is necessary. The problem is that rest turns into complacency without awareness. Life moves on, but growth has not continued. “Stop the world. I want to get off.” So you get off, but you need to get back on at some point, or your usefulness to society and your family are ultimately impaired. The effort needs to be resumed, or the speed of decline starts to accelerate…
When growth stops, it is easy to falsely assume the world stops with you. Then you talk to someone whose growth has continued, and you can feel your lack of growth. If you listen to people that have stopped growing (often in their twenties or thirties), you can hear it. They sound the same as the last time you spoke with them. It can be very weird to listen to someone who hasn’t learned much since the seventies or eighties, a little déjà vu. You know you’ve had this conversation before.
We all know people that haven’t learned much in the past few decades. I know someone my age who still talks like it is 1985. The last church I attended is stuck in the seventies. The state of Michigan government is in the nineties. People are waiting for the good times to return. They are further along the slope of decline than they know. But the people who are listening to them do know.
I am sometimes envious of people that are comfortable. My periods of comfort feel all-too-brief. I feel like I never get to exhale. I feel like I have never been allowed to ever get really comfortable and relaxed, like my generation got gypped out of the security my parents were allowed to take for granted.
The flip side is a reality-based sense of urgency. I know that I don’t know what the future holds. I know that stuff means nothing to me. I know I don’t have forever to make a difference. And I know I don’t want to relax too much.
“Let us live deeply…”